“I’ve wanted to write this book since I was 14, the year I finally understood that Muslim women were everything.”
– Dr Seema Yasmin, author of “Muslim women are everything”
Tahani Amer, an astronaut who grew up on the outskirts of Cairo, suffered a series of refusals before eventually landing a job with NASA’s aeronautical research program.
Marah Zahalka, Noor Daoud and Mona Ennab – members of the Speed Sisters, an all-female motor racing team based in the Palestinian Territories – defy expectations with every race won.
Gisele Marie Rocha is the unexpected face, in niqab and burqa, behind Eden Seed, a thrash metal band from Brazil.
These women are validating the premise behind Dr Seema Yasmin’s new book – that Muslim women can be whatever. The book, “Muslim Women Are Everything,” was published earlier this year.
More than 40 profiles of Muslim women – illustrated by Fahmida Azim – aim to demolish the boring tropes of what Muslim women are: what they look like, what they wear and what they do or don’t do. Page after page, the reader challenges the reader to say that these women cannot or should not.
As for Dr Yasmin: She is a Cambridge-trained physician, specialist in epidemiology, journalist and director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative. She teaches at Stanford and is a visiting professor at UCLA
She did not get there easily.
She was born in Britain to a teenage mother, stuck in an arranged marriage. When Dr Yasmin was only 5 years old, his mother left the family to pursue her own education. As Dr. Yasmin says, “My mom was like, ‘I’m going to leave everything I know behind. I will find a way to get into college so that you can have an education. “”
What followed for Dr Yasmin was a childhood shuttle between worlds – the university where his mother was studying and his family’s conservative Indian Muslim community in the British Midlands.
This book was born out of “frustration that the narratives about Muslim women are so one-sided, so narrow, so unimaginative,” she said.
Dr Yasmin sat down with In Her Words to talk about her work and what she means when she says, “Muslim women are everything.”
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get the idea for this book?
It all started as a very angry tweet. I was absolutely fed up that even when Ibtihaj Muhammad, the American fencer, won a medal at the Olympics, the way she and other Muslim women were celebrated was like, “Oh my God, look at this woman, she is an athlete, and she is a Muslim.
And I was like: Wait, are you really trying to celebrate us by making it look like we can’t do anything?
There was an editor who saw the Tweeter and said: This would make a great essay – are you going to write an essay? And I said no. Instead, I ended up writing this kind of prose poem. It was called ‘Yes Muslim Women Do Things’, and featured Muslim women doing amazing things like snatching salad between their teeth. take a nap. What I meant is that some of us do open heart surgery; some of us go scuba diving; some of us are too lazy to do the dishes.
I think it really hit a nerve. A lot of people hated it. But some editors were like, it would look great like a book.
The proposal started with fictional women doing esoteric things and then with real-life Muslim women who muddy all definitions and shatter all boundaries of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a Muslim.
There is this perverse surprise in some people that Muslim women can lead or be funny or write or, well, do whatever. What explains it?
I think it’s misogyny combined with Islamophobia. When you have a dominant culture that is male and white, it leaves very little room for the rest of us to be ourselves. This is how I found the title. I didn’t want there to be an idea of a Muslim woman. There are some Muslim women in this book who would likely disagree with the views of some of the other Muslim women in this book. And it is awesome. We must have this disagreement.
Nevertheless, many people still have a narrow view of what a Muslim woman is …
Right. The stereotype is a sweet South Asian woman who has had an arranged marriage and wears a hijab and has many children.
Additionally, in the UK and US, the perception of Muslim women often excludes black women.
How do you see your work in the context of Black Lives Matter?
I don’t want to sidestep the BLM movement’s call for black rights, but black Muslims make up one-fifth of all American Muslims, so these struggles are certainly linked.
It was really important to me that the true extent of the Muslim experience was included in the book. But I wasn’t shocked when people asked me on Twitter if the book featured black Muslim women, you’d expect there to be none. The bar is so low when it comes to inclusion.
In your book, you write about actress Zahra Noorbakhsh and how after one of her shows some fans came to her and said, “You must be one of the good Muslims.” It was so disheartening to read this.
I don’t know what Zahra said yet, and I’m sure she’s been through a lot of those moments, but I’m looking at how she approached the comedy industry and how the industry excludes a lot of people. For me, she’s been altered and marginalized, and now she says she’s going to create a new model that is much more inclusive and that brings all voices and perspectives. I feel like that’s actually his response at this time and all of these times.
You have argued that the outside world – be it male clerics or Western politicians – cannot help but influence the choice of Muslim women to cover. Why do you think it is?
Because they don’t believe our body is ours. They watch our bodies. I used to wear a hijab when I was younger. I was very pious. And then at some point I decided that wouldn’t be the way I presented myself to the world. But it was my decision.
I think men want to be the ones to dictate how women present themselves. For some men in some countries, this may mean you need to be covered. And then for others it’s like, “Oh no, we think that’s scary” or “It must mean that you are being oppressed.” But you can be a feminist, you can have the agency and you can choose to wear niqab and burqa, like Gisele Marie Rocha, a guitarist in Brazil. She made it clear why and how she chooses to cover, and how it is a personal choice.
What hope do you have that things will change?
Things are so bad in the world right now that we have to imagine a better future. Without hope, I think I would give up and I believe that the narrow definition that exists is all we have. And I refuse to accept this.
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